Chinook Salmon are the king of our rivers. They are the largest salmon we catch on the Pacific Coast. And once they travel out of the ocean feeding grounds back to the river to spawn, can offer one of the most exciting fishing experiences in the Pacific Northwest. Whether you have a boat or want to fish for these giants from the river bank, I have a few winning techniques to share with you!
How to Catch Chinook Salmon in Rivers
Fishing for Chinook Salmon in rivers from the remote reaches of Alaska southbound down the Pacific Coast gives us plenty to get excited for. The northern reaches of their range brings great fishing as early as June. And as we move south towards my neck of the woods in Washington, September to November is the peak time for river fishing. Each region hosts its own favored techniques. But I can say that Oregon Chinook aren’t that much different from British Columbia Chinook. And you can’t go wrong with any of these fishing techniques throughout their entire Pacific Coast range.
Backtrolling Plugs for Chinook Salmon
Of all the boat fishing tactics, fishing with plugs is one of the most popular. A plug like a Kwikfish, Flatfish or Maglip really draws the eye of a Chinook. They wiggle and dive in the river current. Most of the time, the best fishermen will take bait wrapping thread and tie on a sliver of sardine fillet to the underside. This slows down the action of the lure and releases a heavenly scent for Chinook.
Chinook really get to biting when there is the perfect match of lure attraction and smell. Throughout most of their range, the wrapped bait of choice is sardine. But many of the best river Chinook fishermen will also use herring, anchovy, albacore tuna belly or sand shrimp wraps. I usually don’t deviate from sardines, but it’s worth following the local trend. Wherever you may be back trolling plugs for Chinook.
How to Fish Plugs for Chinook Salmon
Every river section can host travelling Chinook, holding Chinook or both. You can either anchor your boat in a run or hole, or slowly back troll down the stretch. You will need to judge the situation and determine what is best. If they are travelling, you can anchor with confidence and wait for them to come to you. In other situations, maneuvering your drift boat, raft or jet sled slowly down with the currents can put the plugs directly in front of Chinook and force them to either back down river or strike. Back trolling requires steady boat control, as you don’t want your plugs swinging from side to side. You want a straight track line down the current seam.
Your guys just let the wrapped Kwikfish out 40′. Why 40′? Because that’s what you decided, and of course you are the captain so they better damned well do as you say! You slowly back down the current through the run. The right rod closest to the steep bank starts pulling hard from a Chinook! Your buddy Darryl is patient and waits (what seems an eternity but in reality is only 5 seconds). The rod is doubled over and once the Chinook has turned downriver to race back to the safety of the ocean, pulling line out of the reel, Darryl grabs the rod and the battle is on! Well done Darryl! Many a weaker man would fold under pressure and yank on the fish before it is hooked properly.
Backbouncing for Chinook Salmon
You have just found a spot that looks like Chinook mecca. You anchor your boat ahead of where you think Chinook will be stacking up. Or set your guys up and slowly back down current into the zone.
The anglers have a juicy cluster of eggs, with a sliding dropper to a sinker. If the lead is too heavy it won’t back down into the zone. If it’s too light the bait won’t be in the Chinook zone along the river bottom for very long. This technique is all about the slow play. You need your bait to slowly back down right in front of the fish and give them plenty of time to see, smell and munch. You drop it down, lift the rod slightly to allow the sinker to back down another foot. Hold, lift, back down, and repeat until you are past the holding zone or get bit. The bight can feel subtle.
If the process seems painstakingly slow, you are doing it right. You let them munch. Let them eat. Then once you know they are committed, you hammer back and give the biggest hook set of your life! It’s a really fun technique and one of my favorites.
Float Fishing for Chinook Salmon
Bobber fishing with cured salmon eggs is one of the best Chinook Salmon fishing techniques in the river’s deepest and slowest pools. Chinook will often hold in those deep spots. Most of the time, you want to have your bait as close to the river bottom as possible. Some of my favorite Chinook holes are as deep as 20′ and I want my cured eggs dredging the bottom where they are holding. A floating braided mainline is key, and you will be mending it and give control as so it doesn’t pull or push the natural drift of your float and bait. As soon as the float pulls under, I reel as fast as I can to catch up to it. I’ll follow up with a hefty hook set once the rod is bent and loaded over on a Chinook.
Drift Fishing for Chinook Salmon
I love and hate drift fishing for Chinook. I love when I find a deep and gentle run that allows me to bounce bottom with a cluster of cured salmon eggs and get bit by a Chinook. However, I hate seeing people drift fishing with beads or yarn for Chinook, where they know as well as I do that they are essentially snagging them. Drift fish with something they are going to bite! Use just enough lead to occasionally tap bottom. Knowing that your presentation is near the river bottom, in the zone. If you are trying to drag a hook into a Chinook without having them bite… Shame! Much shame! And may a curse be placed on your fishing career!
Plunking for Chinook Salmon
Plunking for Chinook is a little bit of a dying art, but in certain areas can be very effective. You find a lower river spot where you know they will be pushing up with the next high tide. You rig a juicy bait presentation. Maybe top it off with a little added float and attraction such as a Spin N Glo. The pyramid sinker is rigged off a sliding dropper. Just enough weight to anchor it in the current. The rod gets placed in a riverside rod holder. Then you sit back, sip the coffee, and wait for a grab. Best done with friends for some chit chat and jovial conversation.
Twitching Jigs for Chinook Salmon
Twitching marabou jigs used to be a very hush-hush proposition for Coho Salmon. Then the word got out. Now it’s rare to float down a river in the fall and not see everyone twitching for salmon. Chinook Salmon can be coaxed to bite if the jig is right.
Once you pitch in that jig, let it fall and then pop it up with a lift of the rod tip. Lift and fall, lift and fall. That is the name of the game. Purples and pinks tend to be the winning choice. Black and chartreuse are also a crowd favorite.
Rolling Spinners in the River for Chinook Salmon
Washington’s rivers are prime areas to roll large spinners for Coho. Chinook often times surprise us by biting them as well. Alaska anglers use spinners as a mainstay for Chinook Salmon river fishing. Down in the lower 48, a size 4 or 5 spinner is the ticket. Up North, feel free to pitch a size 5 or 6 spinner for the big boys. Cast that spinner into a slow pool or run, let it sink, and retrieve it back as slow as you possibly can. Just fast enough to get that spinner blade to spin, but no faster!